The Etymology of Derivational Suffixes in the English Language

Term Paper, 2001

26 Pages, Grade: 1,0


Table of Contents

I. Introduction

II. Suffixes, derivation and etymology: some definitions and examples

III. Table of derivational suffixes

IV. Interpretation and Conclusion

Table of Abbreviations


I. Introduction

Etymology is the study of the history of words and morphemes, the basic elements in the formation of complex words. The processes involved in word formation (esp. compounding and derivation) are in many cases not easy to distinguish from each other. One important reason for this is the fact that language is not stable, it changes permanently, although the changes are mostly long-term processes and hardly noticeable without the help of an etymological dictionary. Morphemes can for example change their semantic properties and their syntactic position (from free to bound morphemes, form lexicalised words to derivational affixes or the other way around). This has effects on the patterns of word formation, for instance on the productivity of derivational affixes in the formation of new words. But changes are not exclusively the product of isolated developments within the grammar or lexicon of a language. They can also be promoted by the contact of a language with other languages (the borrowing of new words can be a result), or by social, scientific and technological changes that exert an impact on language (for example in the creation of new words). (Williams 1975, 3-9.)

This paper concentrates on the etymology of derivational suffixes. It tries to draw conclusions about changes in the patterns of word formation by derivational suffixation on the basis of a list of 70 derivational suffixes that provides some basic information concerning etymology, semantics and patterns of formation. (Marchand 1969, 229-355.)[1] The conclusions will remain very general because it is not possible to do a detailed examination of every suffix occurring in the list. (III, IV) Beforehand some basic definitions concerning derivation and suffixation that are relevant on the background of further investigations in parts III and IV are given, and it is examined on the basis of some examples how etymology is involved in these processes of word formation (II).

II. Suffixes, derivation and etymology: some definitions and examples

The most general definition of “suffix” has been given by Marchand: “A suffix is a bound morpheme which in a syntagma AB occupies the position B.” (Marchand 1969, 209.) A more concrete definition would tend to replace the “syntagma AB” by “the derived word AB” consisting of the lexical root or stem A and the suffix B. But this concrete definition is not quite correct, although it is true that suffixes occur in derived words, because derivation is not necessarily combined with prefixation and suffixation. Some words are coined by affixless zero derivation, for example the word spy. It is derived from the verb to spy and although it is spelled in the same way as the verb it has changed its syntactic category (Jensen 1990, 5f.):

[spy]v -> [spy]n

A second argument why the “simple definition” does not work is that we have to distinguish between derivational suffixes and grammatical suffixes.

Derivation is a process whereby complex words are formed by combining a lexical root or stem with one or more than one derivational affixes (or without any affixes in the case of zero derivation). These affixes can, but do not have to, change the syntactic category of their respective heads. (Hansen et al. 1982, 88; Cannon 1987, 164.) For example the suffix –ion can produce a noun out of a verbal root or stem.

[generate]v -> [generat + ion]n

But the suffix –cy does not produce any grammatical changes. It forms nouns with nouns:

[prophet]n -> [prophe(t) –cy]n

In a suffixal derivative the suffix is the grammatically and semantically dominant element, which influences the grammatical category of a lexical root. But a prefix does not have any influence on the part of speech of a word. “It joins the category the unprefixed word belongs to.” (Marchand 1969, 228.) If the prefix in- is added to the adjective decent the derived word remains an adjective, only the meaning is shifted. (Matthews 1991, 66.)

[decent]adj -> [in + decent]adj

Not all suffixes that have the capacity of changing the grammatical category of a word are object of derivation. If we compare the words citizens and citizenry, we recognize that only one of them is a derived word, although their structure is similar. Both words consist of the lexical root citizen and a bound morpheme. But the derivational suffix –ry forms a class of words with the semantic basis “group, collectivity of…“ while the grammatical suffix -s indicates the grammatical category plural. (Marchand 1969, 209.) Both suffixes are non- independent elements (bound morphemes), but –ry can, like all derivational suffixes, change the part of speech or the basic semantic meaning of a word, which grammatical suffixes cannot do. (Williams 1975, 124.)

It is the intention of this paper to concentrate on (the etymology of) derivational suffixes. This is why it is necessary to take a closer look at the process of derivation and to distinguish it from other possibilities of word formation, especially compounding. There is a formal and a semantical difference by which the processes of compounding and derivation can be distinguished:

1. Compounding is the concatenation or combination of two words or more into a morphological unit whereby both words are usually free forms like housewife or penknife. (Marchand1969,11.) A derived word consists of only one free form and a derivational affix (a prefix or a suffix or both), which is a bound form. For example the lexical root sheep and the suffix –ish make up the adjective sheepish.
2. Usually both elements in a compound word (whether head or non- head) are lexical: house as well as wife are lexicalised words (in this case nouns) that can exist separately, while in sheepish only the noun sheep is a lexical element.

But these two rules do not apply for all compound and derived words. There are compounds that consist of one lexicalised form or even no lexicalised form at all.

1. In parasynthetic compounds one element is lexicalised and the other element cannot be used outside the compound, at least not in the same grammatical or semantical form as it appears in the compound. For example the compound word milk shake consists of two nouns. Milk is a lexicalised noun which has the same meaning in and outside the compound. But the noun shake can only be found in a dictionary with the general meaning “act of shaking or being shaken”. It only acquires the meaning “category of drinks” in the compound. (OALD1989,785, 1163.)
2. In neo classic compounds like bibliophile, microscope or telegraph there are no free forms, but nevertheless the parts taken from Greek and Latin (like biblios…) are productive. (Adams1973, 31f.)

While there are obviously compounds without any lexicalised free forms, it is possible to find derived words which have two, for example in derived words with a semi- suffix. A semi- suffix is an element in word formation which “stands midway between full words and suffixes”. (Marchand 1969, 356.) Are elements such as –like, -worthy or –monger independent words or derivational suffixes? There are also other cases in which a distinction between compounding and derivation is a matter of interpretation, although this may not be obvious at first sight. In the history of language some derivational affixes had been independent lexicalised words. The suffix –dom, like in kingdom, is an OE noun having the meaning “judgment, authority”.[2] A similar case is the suffix –hood, like in brotherhood, which has its roots in the OE noun had meaning “rank, condition”.[3] (ODEE, 282, 447.) If dom or hood were still accepted as independent lexicalised nouns, the formation of kingdom or brotherhood would have to be considered as compounding. Kingdom and brotherhood would be endocentric compounds with dom and hood as heads, king and brother as determinants. But neither the noun dom nor hood can be found in current English dictionaries. Hood is present as a noun, but does not have the OE meaning that is needed to interpret brotherhood as a compound, and –dom is listed as a suffix that either forms nouns out of verbs and adjectives (for example freedom) or is used with nouns as in kingdom. (OALD, 598, 358.) Dom and hood have changed from free forms to bound forms, form lexical to grammatical status. (Adams 1973, 30; Marchand 1969, 210; Kastovsky 1992, 384.)

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

These facts allow the conclusion that some English suffixes have been produced by “reducing” free morphemes to bound morphemes. But the majority of English derivational suffixes have always been bound morphemes so that there must be other ways in which suffixes entered the English language and became productive in the formation of new words:

1. Reinterpretation and secretion of the second morpheme (“end- morpheme”)

One possibility is the reinterpretation of the second morpheme of a word. For example –scape had been exclusively used in landscape. It was associated with the meaning “pictorial type of view, scenary” so that it could be secreted from landscape and occurred as a productive derivational suffix in other words like cityscape and cloudscape. Another well-known example is hamburger: -burger was associated with “everything that resembles a hamburger” and could be used to create derived words like cheeseburger or porkburger consisting of

- burger as a derivational suffix and of a lexicalised noun specifying it. (Marchand 1969, 213f, Hansen et al. 1982, 66.) But language is not stable: in current English dictionaries –burger is explained as a suffix that forms compound nouns because burger itself (meaning: “informal for hamburger or anything that is similar to a hamburger”) has been lexicalised as a noun. (OALD 1989, 151.)

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

It can be concluded that it entirely depends on the interpretation of the second morpheme (“end- morpheme”) of a word whether its formation has to be considered derivation or compounding. As we have seen reinterpretation is not a one-way street: Dom and hood have lost their status as lexicalised nouns and are no longer heads of compound words, but derivational suffixes. In the case of burger the reinterpretation process has taken the opposite way. First –burger was used as a derivational suffix to coin words denoting food which is similar to a hamburger. Then burger was lexicalised as an independent noun so that words like cheeseburger and so on now have to be interpreted as compounds.

2. “Imported” suffixes from other languages

The contact of English with other languages (esp. with Latin, French, or Latin via French) led to the adoption of many loan words. With these words many derivative morphemes (pre- and suffixes) entered the language and were on the one hand extracted from the loan words and transferred to established words, while on the other hand the loans were used with established derivational suffixes. (Marchand 1969, 210f.)

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

The processes of creating suffixes by reinterpretation or by borrowing from a foreign language do not exclude each other because most derivational suffixes have not been borrowed as such, but have been constituents of loan words until they were “reinterpreted” or newly interpreted as suffixes. (Hansen et al. 1982, 66f.) For example the suffix –furter is the result of the reinterpretation of the second morpheme of the German loan word frankfurter (not referring to the town but to the name of a German sausage). –furter was associated with the meaning “something which has to do with German food” so that it was possible to coin words like krautfurter or chickenfurter. (Marchand 1969, 213.)[4] [5]


[1] For five basic questions dealt with in the interpretation of the list of derivational suffixes see page 7.

[2] The word doom still reminds us of the free form roots of the suffix –dom, although doom has acquired a different meaning than the original. Dom is of OS origin.

[3] Had is of OS (hed) origin.

[4] ON, Ofris: eta, OS: etan, OHG: ezzan. (ODEE, 298.)

[5] Ofris: -nesse, -nisse, OS: nessi, -nissi, OHG: -nessi, -nissi, -nassi. (ODEE, 607.)

Excerpt out of 26 pages


The Etymology of Derivational Suffixes in the English Language
Bielefeld University  (Fakultät für Linguistik und Literaturwissenschaft)
Word Formation
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
503 KB
derivation, suffixes, word formation, etymology, Etymologie, Suffixe
Quote paper
Thomas Gräfe (Author), 2001, The Etymology of Derivational Suffixes in the English Language, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


  • No comments yet.
Read the ebook
Title: The Etymology of Derivational Suffixes in the English Language

Upload papers

Your term paper / thesis:

- Publication as eBook and book
- High royalties for the sales
- Completely free - with ISBN
- It only takes five minutes
- Every paper finds readers

Publish now - it's free